2007 - 2022

The Upside of Austerity

My Utopian dream for the New Scotland is to be liberated from the tyranny of stuff. If you have ever had to crawl around the floor and contort yourself to reach into the gunk-filled areas of your home and investigate murky folding sofa beds to retrieve the item known as the ‘Polly pocket’, then you will begin to know what I mean.

I sit amid a claustrophobic accumulation of stuff and wonder how this nylon and fake velvet coup happened. I can just remember the far off days when each room of the house, bought with the innocence of those days as a 20 year home not a financial investment, echoed with uncarpeted emptiness.

I am to blame for the second hand kitch that began the clutter, but that came from an obsession with getting bargains and rescuing ‘must have’ flying duck sets from such emporia as the cancer shop in Stockbridge. I confess to losing the plot when I insisted in shipping, like so much emotional baggage, a deadweight of an enormous second hand piano from the Area 7 warehouse at Abbey Hill all the way to Orkney.

In the last recession, funded by our giros courtesy of Thatcher’s North sea oil bonanza, us expendable youth combed the Edinburgh streets on bin night for furniture for our shared housing association flat. Lauriston Place was entirely decked out with other folk’s cast offs, rugs, sofas, mattresses, chairs, tables, fridges and even a piano from the Castle Trades Hotel in the  Grassmarket. Spores of consumptive TB and bedbug infestation are modern ills that never entered our heads then.

The merciless drive towards buying new stuff took hold with the arrival of children. The TV babysitter conspired to tantalise the toddling duo with all the delights of pink plastic, the price bombshell placed discreetly on the screen, oblivious and incomprehensible to toddler eyes, and then the tsunami started to take real hold. There were must have ‘collectables’ things called ‘beanie babies’, targeted at the doting granny market, which seemed to be regularly issued in order that you always might feel just behind everyone if you did not have the latest stuffed necessity. Being ignorant of the comparable boy-tide of plastic I am sure it is similar but in suitably un-girly and gender appropriate colours.

TV advertising was unrelenting and cynical. Like, if you like, taking candy from a baby except in reverse, ensuring babies extracted candy from their parents through girning and pester power which we all know is much more difficult to resist, if you are a knackered mum, than the naughty-step-brigade claim.

The hideous plasticana of Barbie would annually launch another doll slightly different to the last with, lo and behold, new accessories and accoutrements for her Californian lifestyle somewhere in Plasticland with the anatomically challenged Ken. Sitting up at 4am trying to assemble a Barbie carriage complete with battery operated automaton horse and a million fiddly little stickers is just one horror memory of chrismas eve. I moot the ‘C’ word indeed, reminded of those nights fabricating the serial virgin births of annual Barbies while waiting in tense anticipation of Santa rolling in from the pub and the subsequent frosty overhung pall that would seep through into the ‘must have joy’ of Christmas day.

As Edwina Curry points to large flat screen tellys and the ‘comfort’of families on benefits with food handouts (BBC One show) there is confusion over what  poverty is in the First World.

While I could always afford to buy the dreaded Christmas fashion toy, I knew that many could not. I knew that I did not have to struggle to ensure my kids had something that helped them fell ‘normal’ in the playground. Their desperation to feel a kind of peer acceptance through acquisition that was constructed and marketed by big business was and is the evil.

Trying to keep your head above water as a mother in that moment between cajoling and damage limitation and somewhere trying to get a night’s sleep or a shower on your own, makes for a very compliant tool in the marketing plan. There is no mental energy for reasoned debate with your toddler on the complexities of capitalism and manipulative selling and any way that will just make the kids seem even more odd in the playground when already, as with my kids, withdrawl from the all the God stuff marked them out.

Feeling different and lesser than their peers is the worst thing a child can feel, so the toy marketing is supplanted and bolstered by clothes, trainers, designer this and designer that,  then graduates to mobile phones and their attendant superfluous fashion, right up to laptops, cars and, yes, personalised number plates. Young people can sniff out an inferior make at a hundred paces. This of course is not what life is about and yet our continued buy-in to this type of toy, clothes and ‘stuff’ dictatorship renders us all powerless with wholly distorted views on what does matter.

I began my own ethnic cleansing policy towards plastic infiltration and latterly my one-woman dictatorship began to mercilessly hover up stray Polly Pockets or bits of them that had escaped the safety of their meringue-topped glittery house with shutters. The noise of them rattling up the hover tube brought a wicked satisfaction to me in my powerless state.

The myth of choice in many areas of our life is that we demand it, it is a ‘right’ and it will make us happy. Yet only those with money can exploit choice be it from schools to supermarkets. In my youth when you just went to the only shoe shop in the town and bought your shoes from the 3 available styles it might be claimed we were deprived of choice. Now I find the blinding nature of choice turns me into an obsessive evaluator of the frivolous pros and cons of miniscule differences in buckles and bows, straps and heels, and still you think you might have missed the elusive perfect shoe.

I just wonder if this whole ‘growth’ thing that we are all supposed to be hell bent on achieving is really where it’s at – I mean GDP. Does it actually make anyone ‘feel’ better? It just illuminates everyone’s lack in the Polly Pocket plastic crap stakes. Likewise, for Edwina Curry to equate poverty only with a distended African bellies is simplistic. There is a whole other argument on food as a weapon of war and Western compliance with corrupt regimes that could be had but will have to wait today. We have in our complex society managed to create more sophisticated perspectives on ‘lack’.

If the considerable brain power of the human race was concentrated less on finding ways to sell plastic rubbish back to itself, and the engineering expertise of our best minds was less obsessed with enabling us to sit in our seats and remote control everything, what kind of lack free society might we envisage? Is it possible that the first base of poverty that is distended bellies could be eliminated, and the subsequent bases of satisfaction lack which our stuff-choked society feels, could be replaced by human connection and feeling normal? Can material acquisition be replaced by intellectual acquisition built on a given of a full belly, warmth and a roof?

The up side to austerity is the realisation of the worthless con that is material greed on which the house of cards of collapsing economies rely. The built-in obsolescence of Henry Ford means we never have things that last although it is perfectly possible that we could. The challenge is to create a new normal that does not require de facto poverty and an exhausting and unaffordable race to chase stuff to make you feel fleetingly accepted and good with the subsequent downer of an addict.

For starters, stuff stuff.

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  1. Ossian MacUrcrin says:

    I’m all for the change and am already beginning the transition towards a more permaculture based lifestyle. I’ve only got a small garden, but it’s amazing how much you can grow for yourself and also how much you can recycle from other peoples discards. It strikes me as being the only way forward and the ordinary folks in Cuba, have been quite an inspiration too! 🙂

  2. Ben Power says:

    What a brilliant article. As a parent of six (now all adults), I can relate to it all from the struggles to the realization that stuff and all the hype and societal controls really should be stuffed.

  3. Debby Fox says:

    As a person who makes her living by helping people de-clutter their homes, I only say *bravo* for your article. For the past two years, I have worked with hoarders, people whose lives are consumed by their *things*, their obsessive-compulsive need to be surrounded by as much stuff as possible, be it worthless, unsanitary or sentimental. The pain these people feel is real and heart-breaking to watch. Fortunately I have reached the stage of life where I no longer need to accumulate or consume at the level I did when I was younger. My home is furnished with good quality furnishings that create a comfortable environment for my life; I have no need to dress in good clothes for my job. I am comfortable with my surroundings and until something wears-out, I don’t need to buy much except food and daily grooming products. Thanks for your insight.

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